The Performance of Ghost Hunting, Part I

This is a two-part post about my studies into the relationship between performance and the act of ghost hunting.

Ghostlight-30_webA performance is typically defined as an event where there is someone who is presenting something, and there are a group of people observing. This definition of performance is not limited to only theatres or television and movies. A performance can take place at nearly any time of day at any kind of location. Performances can happen at school with the popular crowd, and they can happen at ghost hunts. Scholars have written thousands of book on performance studies and there are even degrees dedicated to the discipline. As a society that is ever growing and changing on a regular basis, there are so many different types of performances out there that appease almost every person out there. From traditional musicals that warm the heart, to the heart-wrenching dramas that influence someone to call their mother to tell them they love her, to the soul shattering avant-garde performance that makes you analyze what it means to be human….performance is an essential part of our existence that is necessary in order for us to survive and thrive.

Before we dive into the performance of ghost hunting, let us take a moment to consider the relationship between performance and spirituality. The earliest roots in theatre lie in ancient Greece in something called, “ritual reenactment”. Back before theatre and performance was established, the ancient Greeks wanted to honor the gods by telling stories of their greatness. This initially began as “oral tradition” where someone would dramatically tell stories of the gods, with an audience watching. The audience would then become performers themselves and spreading the stories around like wildfire. With ritual reenactment, these early performances including singing hymns and performing some kind of movement.

To keep this along the lines of being the abridged version, the villages and tribes began to compete with each other by adding costumes, live music, and written texts in their performances for the gods. One could argue that the original audiences were the gods, and the transition from performing for them to performing to fellow humans was one of the breakthrough moments in the creation of live theatre. Overall, theatre is a very spiritual experience, which the philosopher Aristotle argued that it was needed for the purposes of catharsis, meaning the purging of emotions. If you have ever cried during a movie, you had a cathartic experience. Catharsis was seen as a necessity for cleansing the soul.

With the thought in mind that theatre was originally intended to be spiritual and for the gods as a gift, is it a surprise that there are rumors about theatres being haunted in the first place. Some of my favorite cliché ghost stories come from the urban legend of haunted theatres from the spurned woman in white who lost her chance to be on the stage to the Macbeth curse causing shenanigans in each production, there is a strong connection there. Until the media came into existence with television and film, theatre was the vehicle for expressing society’s belief in the paranormal, and you can watch that belief evolve over time by just analyzing the plays from each time period.

I suppose that the title of this article can be misleading, as it is not an article on how to perform a paranormal investigation or ghost hunt, there are enough of those books out there on the market. Instead, it is a venture into a theory that theatre people, whether they are actors, tenant, directors, dancers, etc. they are inadvertently capturing the attention of the ghosts and causing a performance from both the living and the dead. Artistic people are interesting enough on their own, and I would not be surprised if a ghost chose to attempt communication with an artistic person over someone whose not. I will say that artists are very open-minded to the world around. Could they be lifting a psychic wall around them and making them more vulnerable to having some sort of communication with the other side? If you were dead, and you couldn’t find a way to communicate with the living, and you found someone who could hear you, wouldn’t you do whatever you could muster up to catch their attention? The answer is probably yes. But this isn’t a performance. That is the lost seeking out a solution. When the situation is reversed, and there is someone trying to communicate with a deceased person, the ghost isn’t able to communicate in the way that they used to in life, so they have to pull out the dramatic displays in order to get their point across. I would imagine that this is an extremely frustrating endeavor.

The most obvious example of performances in ghost hunting is in paranormal reality shows that became increasingly popular in the early 21st century. It is a far cry from ritual reenactment and the once cathartic experience that was the performance space. I think perhaps the reason why for this widespread popularity was the fact that the paranormal is an unknown area of knowledge. You can’t get a college degree in paranormal studies and many people who do come forward with experiences in the public eye are portrayed as being insane and not to be taken seriously. At the end of the day, these production companies need to make money. You make money by drawing in an audience, and you keep that audience by continuing to make your show entertaining. I won’t say that the “paratainment” business has sullied the investigation field, but instead, has brought exposure to the paranormal and hopefully making people more open-minded about the existence of ghosts. In the last ten years, there has also been a dramatic rise in the number of ghost tours at numerous haunted locations, where a group of people will go ghost hunting for a night while locked in a building with a guide. The paranormal reached a new height when it came to monetizing the potential interactions with the dead, which many people pay big money for. But because the factor of money is now included in the experience, I have to wonder if along with tickets being paid, if there was an expectation of goods to be delivered (such as a paranormal experience). In turn, does this turn ghosts into entertainers? And if so, what does this mean for the ghosts at the Tenth should Jeff decide to move forward with the guided ghost tours?

I would like to say that my investigations and research into the building have not subjected the ghosts into being put into a situation where they are being asked to perform tricks, since I don’t expect them to ever perform for me. If they choose not to communicate, while I may be disappointed, I acknowledge that it is their right to not talk. But another researcher from the outside looking in may have a different opinion. Where is that fine line between requesting communication and asking the ghosts to essentially perform tricks? I suppose that it is all in the eye of the beholder and the ghosts that are being placed in that situation. If you were to ask me what my long-term goal was for the Tenth, it would be that someday the most prestigious researchers in the paranormal and psychic phenomenon visit the Tenth. I would love to be able to secure the building for a weekend (at the very least) and let these researchers loose in the building and see what comes of it.

Performers, in terms of actors, dancers, musicians, and artists, seem to be completely different people compared to business professionals or those who don’t consider themselves to be artistically minded. For example, let us go back to the Ganzfeld experiment, which is the sensory deprivation experiment that leads to the altered state of consciousness. There was a study conducted in 1992 where the American Society for Psychical Research used twenty of the most gifted students from the Julliard School in New York City and put them through the sender-receiver experiment. The results were extraordinary because there was a success rate of 50%, which was double the success expectation rate. The facilitators of the experiment, Charles Honorton and Marilyn Schlitz then used eight musicians for the remainder of the experiment. Six out of the eight students either had direct hits or a 75% success rate. Again, these are extraordinary results. The theory behind this success rate was due to the participants; especially the musicians have a dissociated state of mind. Very much like meditation, being dissociated is very much like the feeling of being on autopilot and disconnecting from the outside word. According to John G. Kruth, the executive director of the Rhine Research Center, jazz musicians who often improvise their music will go into this state as they play, channeling the environment around them as they make up their own tune. What would happen if we allowed a bunch of actors to go in and ghost hunt for a night? What kind of results would come up from the night? If we go by the results of the study of the Julliard students and the Ganzfeld experiment, it seems as though there could be potential of a productive interaction with the ghosts.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for part two coming later this week.

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